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(Freedom's) Just Another Word

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Obi-Wan frowned at his starship's screen. The droid fighters had taken out one of his rear thrusters, as well as most of his shields. The hyperdrive wasn't in great shape either after all those jumps. Over the com he could hear his astromech trying to lock what remained of the thruster down, but he didn't feel very optimistic about R4's chances.

He'd followed the signal of the tracking beacon on the Sith Lord's ship from Naboo to Tarsis IV, the droid fighters hot on his tail. He'd finally lost the droids after the last jump, but the beacon's signal had grown faint and Obi-Wan wasn't entirely sure he could land the ship at this point. The moon's terrain was rough and aside from a few heavily fortified mining settlements, home primarily to hostile lifeforms.

Unfortunately, he didn't have much choice. The Sith had taken Anakin, and Obi-Wan's com had also been damaged in the last attack. Tarsis IV was remote, anyway. Why had the Sith come here? It seemed an unlikely location for the Sith to headquarter.

Obi-Wan punched in some landing coordinates close to the weak tracking beacon signal, and R4 whistled frantically. "Turn off autopilot, R4," Obi-Wan said.

The landing was rougher than he expected; his ship wouldn't be taking off again any time soon and he was covered with bruises from rattling around in the pilot's chair. He'd landed atop one of the jungle-covered mesas, overlooking a wide canyon. He pulled out his binocs and scanned the scene, finally spotting a ship half-covered with foliage below him. It was definitely the Sith's ship; he'd done a better job of choosing coordinates than he'd thought.

He spared a moment to grab some emergency rations and a luma before setting out for the valley floor. There was no time to take more; he didn't even know if the Sith was still near his ship. He had to reach Anakin as soon as possible.

As it turned out, he needn't have worried on the first count; the Sith Lord lay slumped against the boarding ramp of his ship. One arm was clearly broken, and while it was hard to tell with the red and black tattoos, Obi-Wan was pretty sure the man had much more extensive injuries.

At Obi-Wan's approach the man stirred slightly, reaching for his lightsabre. "Jedi," he rasped.

"Where is the boy you took?" Obi-Wan said, igniting his lightsabre, although the Sith didn't look like he could put up much of a fight.

The Sith laughed faintly, and coughed up some dark blue blood. "I do not have him," he said.

"You're lying."

"You want me to be lying."

"If you don't have him, where is he?"

"You are a Jedi," the Sith said. "Heal my injuries and I will tell you."

Obi-Wan regarded him for a moment, eyes narrowed. "You cannot heal yourself?"

"The Dark Side does not heal." He coughed again, more blood.

Obi-Wan flipped his lightsabre off and clipped it to his belt, then knelt by the Sith and reached for the Force. If this was what it took to save Anakin, he would do it.

The Sith's injuries were so extensive, Obi-Wan was surprised he was still alive, much less conscious. In addition to the broken arm, he had several broken ribs, damage to the internal organs, and what looked like severe electrical burns. "What happened to you?"

The Sith closed his eyes and said, "Information later," his voice weaker than before. Obi-Wan set to work.


 

As soon as the Sith was stable enough, Obi-Wan had dragged him onto his ship and closed the ramp. Night was coming, and nightfall on Tarsis IV brought things he'd rather not deal with. Now the Sith was propped up in his bunk, bandaged with bacta strips Obi-Wan had found in the ship's medkit. His eyes were open, and he watched Obi-Wan silently as Obi-Wan took stock of the ship's other resources.

"My master took the boy," he said, suddenly. His voice was still quiet, almost whispery. It surprised Obi-Wan a little, that silky voice coming from that disturbing face. "He almost killed me."

Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow, maintaining outward calm. Inside, his heart sank. If this was the Apprentice, and the Master had taken Anakin, it might be too late already. "You defended him?"

"No," the Sith said simply. "I defended my place."

"He intends to turn Anakin into a Sith?" Obi-Wan asked, horrified.

The Sith shrugged. "The boy is strong in the Force, and full of fear."

"Where did he take Anakin?"

"I do not know. He is often on Coruscant, but there are many places he might have taken the boy."

"Coruscant!" The Sith Master, right under their noses all these years. From the Sith's amused look, Obi-Wan guessed that his thoughts were clear on his face. "You should sleep," he said, keeping his voice neutral. "I have more questions for you in the morning."

Obi-Wan didn't sleep much that night; he examined the inside of the ship from bow to stern, checked all the instrument readouts, and looked in on the Sith periodically to make sure he was still asleep. He would still be weak from the healing for a time, but Obi-Wan didn't underestimate his strength, or trust him.

The Sith's ship seemed to be in better condition than his. A few repairs and it would be flightworthy again. There were sufficient rations for at least a week, longer if they could find anything edible in the jungles. Finally, Obi-Wan dozed for a few hours in the pilot's chair.

He woke in the morning to the smell of caf. The Sith was holding it out. His hand shook slightly, and he leaned on the edge of the control console for support. Obi-Wan took the cup, surprised, and inhaled the fragrant steam.

"It's not poisoned," the Sith said. "I still need you to help repair my ship." He bared his teeth in what Obi-Wan thought might be a smile, if he squinted.

"I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi."

"Maul." The Sith glanced at the pile of instrument readouts on the console. "Busy night. You should have rested."

"The repairs should take a week," Obi-Wan said. "Less if you are strong enough to help."

Maul gave him a narrow-eyed look. "Then what?"

"Then," Obi-Wan said, "I am going to Coruscant to rescue Anakin and take you in custody to the Jedi Temple."

Maul sneered. "You are welcome to try."

Obi-Wan shrugged and grinned at him. "You can barely walk."

Maul ignored him. "I will help retrieve the child," he said.

"What?" Obi-Wan stared at him. "Why?"

"Do you think I wish to be replaced? I know exactly how long I will have to live once my master determines the boy's suitability."

Obi-Wan shook his head. He didn't like this at all, but he wasn't sure he had any choice at this point. Maul was still the only one who knew the Sith Master's identity.


 

Day on Tarsis IV was miserably hot and humid, but dawn and dusk were too dangerous to be outside. Maul wasn't strong enough to climb safely yet, so Obi-Wan climbed atop the ship and began repairing the rear deflector shield generator, while Maul worked on the side thrusters. Obi-Wan kept part of his attention on Maul and part on the jungle around them--day was by no means safe--and it slowed him down.

"I am not going anywhere," Maul called up eventually, clearly irritated. "I want to leave here as much as you do."

Obi-Wan believed him, but couldn't quite shake a feeling of unease. Perhaps it was the jungle.

The second morning they found deep score marks around the transparisteel viewports, spaced like the claws of a very large animal. Maul frowned. "We should work faster," he said. "I have been here before."

Obi-Wan watched Maul set to work again, frowning. If Maul had been here before, what had he intended to do with Anakin?

The fourth day, they were attacked by a flock of large flying reptiles. Obi-Wan sensed them coming a moment before the first swept by, raking his back open with vicious tearing claws. Maul threw a wrench at it as it swung by for a second pass, and it fell from the sky, shrieking. Apparently Maul had recovered enough to draw on the Force again. That was a worrisomely quick recovery.

Obi-Wan had his lightsabre out in a moment and then stopped thinking about Maul in the press of defending himself. On the ground, Maul's double-bladed lightsabre hummed, a blur of energy, and the reptiles fell shrieking around him.

Afterwards, Maul helped him haul the carcasses as far from the ship as possible. It was still too close for Obi-Wan's liking; they would attract scavengers and opportunistic predators. He thought of the scores on the ship's hull, half an inch deep in durasteel. "How much more until we can fly?" he asked.

"Hyperdrive motivator. The compartment is on the outside, in the belly. Left thrusters need some wiring replaced."

Obi-Wan sighed. They'd have at least one more night here. "Let's get back to work."

They took the risk and worked into dusk; as they closed the ramp, Obi-Wan heard howling from the direction of the carcasses they'd dumped. Neither of them slept that night, sitting silently in the cockpit with lightsabres in hand, looking out into the darkness.


 

They didn't talk much for most of the trip to Coruscant, although Obi-Wan often caught Maul watching him with a strange expression. The look unsettled him, and he wasn't sure why. Sometimes they would accidentally touch while moving about the cramped quarters of the ship, and Obi-Wan began to recognize that he felt attraction to the Sith.

He had been in close quarters with the man for too long, that was all. Nothing would come of it. It meant nothing. He was still a good Jedi.

"Who is the Sith Master?" he finally asked, the day before they reached Coruscant.

Maul gave him a considering look. "He is highly placed," he said at last. "I do not think you will believe me until you see him."

Obi-Wan hadn't paid much attention to politics outside the Jedi Order, but there was only one highly placed man who had ties to Naboo, and who would have known of Anakin's existence.

"Palpatine!"

Maul nodded. "He is a dangerous man to cross," he said. "We will probably die."

"Why try?" Obi-Wan said. "You'll have a hundred chances to escape me once we reach Coruscant. You could flee, live a new life."

Maul shook his head. "You do not know him." They were coming out of hyperdrive, and he turned to look out the cockpit at the bright jewel of Coruscant as it came into view. "I would rather die free and in a way of my own choosing."


 

It was not difficult to reach Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's office, and Obi-Wan had only a moment to to wonder whether Maul had lied to him--it would be difficult to explain showing up at an innocent man's door in the company of a Sith Lord--before the door slid open on Palpatine and Anakin, accompanied by several Senate Guards.

"Obi-Wan!" Anakin started to run to Obi-Wan, but stopped, at the sight of Maul or because of the guard who reached to pull him back, Obi-Wan wasn't sure. "What's going on?"

"Anakin, dear boy," Sidious said, in the kindly voice of Chancellor Palpatine. "Why don't you go to your room?" He gave a small nod to the guards, who began leading Anakin from the room.

"Why are you with him?" Anakin said to Obi-Wan, pointing at Maul.

"Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith Master," Obi-Wan said. "We've come to take you back to the Temple."

"Lies! They are the Sith, come to murder me!" Sidious spat, and to the guards, "Leave us!"

"Obi-Wan!"

Obi-Wan slipped into a ready stance and reached for his lightsabre, but Maul said, "That will not help you."

A sickly purple crackle of electricity was gathering around Sidious's hands. Before Obi-Wan could react, Maul grabbed his hand, bone-crushingly hard, and drew on the Force through Obi-Wan. It hurt more than anything else Obi-Wan had ever felt, and he'd had no time to prepare himself. The energy was scalding, tearing at Obi-Wan's nerves, and he almost collapsed.

Maul flung his other hand out in Sidious's directions just as Sidious directed the electricity towards them. The Sith lightning met Maul's shield and spread out, seeking a way through.

"I need more," Maul gritted to Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan, half-delirious from pain, tried to stop fighting and let the Force flow through him. He had not been trained to handle this kind of power. Perhaps no human could. He felt the Dark touching him, colder than ice, reaching into his being, and knew no more.

Obi-Wan woke to Maul shaking his shoulder. For a moment he thought he saw a flash of concern in the man's yellow eyes, but it was quickly gone. "We must take the boy and go," Maul said.

Obi-Wan sat up, grimacing in pain. "Sidious?"

"Dead." Maul slipped an arm behind Obi-Wan's shoulders and hauled him to his feet. "Can you walk?"

"I think so." Obi-Wan felt like he had been thoroughly beaten. Every muscle and bone in his body hurt. His *eyeballs* hurt. He felt drained mentally as well, and there was no time to do anything about any of it.

Maul, curse him, looked fine. And Obi-Wan knew that healing was not among his skills. He would just had to endure until they reached safety and he could meditate.

"I had no other choice," Maul said softly, and his hand under Obi-Wan's arm was gentle. "Sidious was stronger."

"I know," Obi-Wan said, but he still felt unsettled, as if the Dark still touched his soul around the edges. He shook his head. That wasn't how it worked. The Dark could not take you unless you invited it.

Maul took care of the men guarding Anakin, and the boy flew to Obi-Wan. "I thought Chancellor Palpatine was nice," Anakin said into Obi-Wan's tunic. Obi-Wan tried not to wince at Anakin's over-enthusiastic embrace.

"Sometimes evil is hidden by fair words," Obi-Wan said, stroking Anakin's hair. "I'm so sorry, Anakin."


"The boy will never be a Jedi," Maul said later. They'd rented two rooms in a quiet, middle-class section of Coruscant. Anakin was asleep in the other one, while Obi-Wan and Maul lingered over the first real meal they'd had in weeks. "You are a fool if you think he will."

Obi-Wan sighed. "I had concerns. My master believes he is the Chosen One."

"Maybe he is," Maul said. "That does not mean he will be a Jedi."

Obi-Wan gave him a sharp look, but Maul's face was unreadable. "What else is there for him?"

"The galaxy."

Maul stepped into into Obi-Wan's space like a sandtiger, all lithe, lethal grace. His intent was clear, and Obi-Wan knew that he should look away or speak or step out of the dance. But he didn't; he let Maul back him up against the wall of their room, holding his gaze. He felt warm and liquid and over-full of the Force, and it spilled over in a rush when Maul finally touched him, a possessive sweep of hands down his chest.

Obi-Wan took a sharp breath and almost cried out when Maul pulled him forward to press their bodies together; the crackle of near-electricity where they touched was almost painful. Now was the time to pull away, to speak of Jedi vows.

But he didn't.


 

"Where will you go?" Obi-Wan asked the next morning at the docks. He wasn't sure when he had abandoned the idea of trying to take Maul to the Temple, but it didn't seem fair, and Maul was no longer a Sith. He deserved a second chance.

Maul shrugged, outwardly composed. "Does it matter?"

"I suppose not," Obi-Wan said.

"I will be my own man," Maul said. "That is enough." He smiled faintly, then leaned over and kissed Obi-Wan, a quick brush of mouths. The physical touch was chaste enough, but it left Obi-Wan's nerves humming with tension and unspoken words. He had enough of those to write a book.

"If you tire of the Jedi, come find me," Maul said, and touched Obi-Wan's cheek lightly. Then he turned and swept up the ramp to his ship--always the dramatic entrances and exits, Obi-Wan thought--and did not look back.

Anakin was giving Obi-Wan a wide-eyed and disturbed look.

"I--" Obi-Wan stopped. He had been about to say I'll explain when you're older, but he wouldn't be the one to start lying to the boy. Anakin would encounter more than enough who would. "Life is complicated, Anakin," he said instead. "If I said it gets any easier when you're older, I'd be lying."

"Oh," Anakin said, and the resigned understanding in his voice made Obi-Wan want to go back to Tatooine and start hitting people, as little as that would solve. He still couldn't understand it, how people could treat a child--treat anyone--like that. No Jedi could understand it, growing up in the shelter of the Order. How could they possibly hope to heal Anakin?

Maul was right. Anakin would never be a Jedi. Outside the Order, the boy might even learn to be happy. Obi-Wan only had to convince Qui-Gon that this was for the best.

"Where are we going now, Obi-Wan?" Anakin asked, a slight quiver in his voice.

Obi-Wan ruffled Anakin's hair. "The Temple, to see Master Qui-Gon," he said. "Then Naboo, if you like. I think the Queen would offer you a home if you wished it, and your mother as well."

"Home," Anakin said softly. He looked up at Obi-Wan, trust shining in his eyes. They hadn't beaten that out of him, at least. "I'd like that."

And after Anakin was safely on Naboo, safely away from the Jedi--well, the universe had endless possibilities for a free man.